It's now been 275 days since former Northwestern quarterback Trevor Siemian played his last game in purple; 275 days since the competition to start on Sept. 5, 2015 against Stanford truly began; 275 days since one era ended.
And still we wait. Still we wait to find out whether or not another era will begin. Still we wait for the final reveal of the identity of the man who will undoubtedly be the leading protagonist on the field for Northwestern football in 2015.
Pat Fitzgerald and his coaching staff have had 275 days to find a starting quarterback. Unless a decision was made after Saturday's scrimmage, they still have not found one. The clock is ticking. The deadline looms, 12 days away.
Throughout the past nine months, Fitzgerald and his staff have been mum when it comes to the competition. For the most part, they've avoided referring to the three contenders — Zack Oliver, Matt Alviti and Clayton Thorson — by name when talking to the media, instead referring to "all three" as a whole; they've forgone specifics for general coachisms. After 273 days, that was still the case Saturday as well. McCall said following the scrimmage that "[the three quarterbacks] all did some good things, and they all did some things that weren't so good." But it was clear to us that Oliver and Thorson looked significantly better than Alviti.
Thus, this is a case where a lack of information necessitates speculation. I do not know what Pat Fitzgerald and his staff are thinking. I do not know who the favorite is. I do not know how close a decision is. But here's how I see the situation:
First of all, I do believe that, at least prior to Saturday, a decision had not yet been made. Fitzgerald has said that he will not necessarily reveal the identity of the starter when the decision is in fact made due to maintaining a competitive advantage. But the fact that all three QBs played Saturday while almost all other starters rested, and all three saw equal reps, makes it pretty clear that the staff has yet to reach that point.
Here's another thing I believe: I believe that almost everybody — coaches, fans, perhaps even the majority of NU players — wanted Thorson to win the job. Regardless of the result of this year's competition, Thorson, a redshirt freshman, is widely regarded as the quarterback of the future. So everybody wanted him to play well enough in camp. Everybody wants him to live up to his potential.
Thorson personifies hope for Northwestern fans, both for this year and the next three. And both this year and over the next three, it is Thorson who gives Northwestern the best chance to "compete for championships." He might not give the Wildcats the best chance to make a bowl. But if Northwestern is to return to where many thought the program was headed in 2012, it is likely to happen with Thorson at quarterback.
Thorson's style also is the best fit of the three for McCall's offense. He has the build and the arm to stand in the pocket and make quick throws. He also has the mobility to run the read option and be a threat with his legs.
Here are two more things I believe though: One is that Fitzgerald truly wanted this competition to be decided a while ago. He has said as much, and, well, who wouldn't want it to have been decided already? It's simply logical. The other thing I believe is that if Thorson had shown what the coaches — and everybody — wanted to see throughout camp, then he would have already been named Northwestern's starting quarterback.
That has not happened yet. And it is not insignificant that it was Oliver who was given the first drive in Saturday's scrimmage. The order was not based strictly on seniority, since Thorson, a freshman, got the second drive and Alviti, a sophomore, got the third.
Oliver's performance Saturday was also not insignificant. It's not as if he slung the ball all over the field, hitting every route on the route tree. But he was quick with his decision making, and was for the most part accurate, and with that being all he was asked to do, perhaps those are McCall's priorities for his starter. Additionally, while it's easy to overreact to one practice, it's reasonable to assume that Saturday was at least in some way representative of performances throughout camp, especially given the order in which the three saw the field.
The other thing to consider with Oliver is the options naming him the starter would present to the coaching staff. On the surface, Oliver's limitations are binding; his lack of mobility takes whole pages out of the playbook. McCall's offense is best when he has a dual-threat quarterback at the helm.
But if Oliver is handed the reins, that opens up the possibility of some iteration of a two-QB system. If Thorson were to win the job, it wouldn't make much sense to pair him with Alviti, because Thorson's running ability is sufficient. But if Oliver wins the job, either Alviti or Thorson could be used in situational roles. That's not to say Fitzgerald and McCall want a true two-QB system — I don't think they do — but choosing Oliver would allow them to get creative with an abbreviated version of it.
So with all that being said, If Saturday is, to some degree, what Fitzgerald and McCall have seen throughout camp, I do not believe that they'll be swayed by Thorson's upside. It's easy to theorize that Thorson is the risky option, the high-ceiling-low-floor options, and that Oliver is the safe, low-ceiling-high-floor option, and that that will govern Fitzgerald's and McCall's decision making. But the reality is that by now, Fitzgerald and McCall likely know roughly what they have in all three guys, at least in the present. We don't know, but they do. They might not know how Thorson will develop, but they know what he is right now. And it's highly unlikely that Thorson would struggle in practice and then light up the Big Ten (or vice versa). So the decision isn't necessarily about risk, or upside. It's about who, based on everything the coaches have seen over the past 275 days, gives Northwestern the best chance to win in 2015. That's a cliché, a coachism, if you must. But in this case, it's true.
I believe that Fitzgerald and McCall wanted to watch tape, analyze performances, and come away thinking it was Thorson who gave them that best chance. But I'm not sure that has happened. And if it's Oliver who looks more polished, more capable of leading this offense to success, I think Fitzgerald will go with the senior.
Up until Saturday, based on everything I had heard, I chalked up Thorson as the clear favorite. I wavered every once in a while, but still, if anybody asked who the starting quarterback was going to be, there was no hesitation. Thorson was the answer.
Now, I'm torn. In my mind, Alviti has been all but ruled out. But between Thorson and Oliver, it's an even-money bet. I'm sure the coaches have at least begun to lean one way or the other. But I couldn't tell you which way that is. So until we hear from Fitzgerald, or until we see No. 10 or No. 18 (or No. 7) trot out onto the field on Sept. 5, Northwestern's quarterback competition is still completely up in the air — perhaps more so than it has ever been.